A banner year for music I must say. I guess I burned out of electronica a bit this year, as nothing seemed to emerge from that prolific, dots & loops sampled computer landscape that has grown to occupy so much space on my hard drive. This year I suppose I was mostly impressed by good old-fashioned white male indie rock/folk/pop. A few female voices can be found, but sadly a lower than desired yield. So praise the comeback of the singer-songwriter. Real instruments played by real musicians, filled with props to all the trailblazers of the underground musical past. The good news is there is no more complaining about where to find this stuff. If you are reading this, then you have internet access. If you have internet access, you can gather all this stuff in a few moments. So please do.
1. The High Dials – The War of the Wakening Phantoms (Rainbow Quartz)
In a league almost by itself, “The War of the Wakening Phantoms” is easily the pop record of the year. Montreal’s High Dials have rather quietly been passed the baton from last year’s hometown victors The Arcade Fire. The album is a meandering homage to all that has come before it. There are lazy harmonica-driven Lennonesque tunes, jangly banjo-driven stories that recall the obscure melodies of the painfully underappreciated Harvest Ministers, rootsy Jayhawks-like Americana, to more obvious shimmering brit-rock songs that roll along like summer. All told this is a masterpiece assembled like a quilt, borrowing neat little squares of the past and arranging them so that they feel like something brilliantly new.
2. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah! “Clap Your Hands Say Yeah!”
Falling as quickly for a record as you did your first teenage crush, is a difficult feat when you are 36 years old have the skeletal remains of literally hundreds of temporary musical romances hanging in your closest. But the self-produced debut masterpiece by New York’s “Clap Your Hands” is everything good that the 80’s post-punk resurgence hasn’t yet entirely exploited to the point of exhaustion: “77” era Talking Heads vocals, mixed with the punk guitar stylings of The Fall or Buzzcocks. A debut like this sets itself up for immeasurable scrutiny next time around, as well as obvious suspicion regarding its rather flagrant Byrne-like vocals, but I think it is best to live in the moment with this one.
3. Sufjan Stevens “Illinoise” (Asthmatic Kitty)
Sufjan Stevens is an artsy guy from Michigan (and now Brooklyn) who writes songs and stories about cities, small towns and roads that connect them. This time around it is a musical tour of Illinois (“Chicago,” “Decator,” “Jacksonville”) lead by delicate but still icy cool voice, and decorated with a musical backdrop that includes almost every instrument known to man. Although there are probably a few too many songs here, the best ones are easily soon to be classics. “Illinoise” is not just another quirky concept record but something to be celebrated and shared with little words of mouth.
4. Antony and the Johnsons “I Am a Bird Now” (Interscope)
For those under the age of say – 40 – a record like this defies categorization. This is an old fashioned piece of gothic balladry, with vocalist Antony sounding like a beautiful cross between the soulful gospel of Nina Simone and the sultry crooning of the Scott Walker. With nary a guitar in sight, “I am a Bird Now” is cabaret music for the modern age. It is largely piano-driven so think Nick Cave or Tom Waits hunkered over the ivories banging away, but without all the bitterness – just patient candlelit intensity. It is hard to know where this will fit into this new cross marketed musical landscape, but frankly I could give a rats ass because this is the most courageous record of the year.
5. Rogue Wave “Descended Like Vultures” (Sub Pop)
If you weren’t paying close attention to the sounds coming from your stereo you might think “Descended Like Vultures” was a new (or maybe old) Shins record. It could be, I suppose. The songs are infectiously bright, fashioned both from crisp acoustic corners and louder more sonic dreamscapes. Lyrically Rogue Wave may be less grad school clever than Death Cab or The Decemberists, but singer Zach Rogue more than compensates with his addictive vocal style. This is a little buried treasure kind of like the musical equivalent of a an easy art film.
6. Iron & Wine and Calexico “In The Reins”/ Iron & Wine “Women King EP” (Sub Pop)
Sam Beam, aka Iron & Wine, is as fine a singer as I have heard in quite a while. For a handful of ridiculously wonderfully soulful folk-country solo records, he has been largely naked behind only acoustic guitar and drums. With the “Women King EP” things get a bit more sonic and alive. There is still a spare kind of intimacy here, but he’s kicked up just enough. With “In the Reins” the hugely underappreciated Calexico, have helped to transform the fragility of Iron & Wine into a full-on rock band. Seven groove-laden, eerily southwestern sounding jewels ooze from the stereo like tumbling tumbleweeds of cool. I can only hope Mr. Beam continues to spread his wings.
7. My Morning Jacket “Z” (RCA)
What can you say about the angelically macho vocals of singer Jim James that his voice won’t explain immediately? Like a choirboy gone mad in the majestic high-naved cathedral, James’ voice is the instrument that guides the dreamy, swirling guitars, drums and keys on their mystical voyage throughout “Z.” But what is so remarkable about this album is the way in which the band has reinvented itself. Once a rock band with a vaguely alterna-country twang, this record is as diverse an amalgam of songs as any this year. At times it sounds like the electronica influenced record that U2 has been looking to pull off in the years since “The Joshua Tree” and at other times simple straightforward pop more akin to the recent Flaming Lips masterpieces. But in the end an enormous sweeping beauty touches most of these songs in a way that I hope endures the test of time.
8. The National “Alligator” (Beggars Banquet)
I love the straight-up-white-guy-indie-rock more than just about anyone I know. There is so much of it, but sifting through the rubble for diamonds in the rough like this is what it’s all about! This is an album filled with melodies, ridiculously hummable choruses, and occasionally rocking guitar lines. “Alligator” is unpretentious, yet still cool, trying to be nothing more than what it is. In a way this record is kind of like Springsteen for hipsters, earnest, anthemic at times, and interesting.
9. Bloc Party “Silent Alarm” (Vice)
Unlike so much of the retro post punk that has emerged in the years since the Strokes and Interpol burst the bubble, Bloc Party combine both that scholarly sense of what has come before, with a songwriting range more akin to Coldplay before they had an audience to please. They can drive fast, while still towing that fragile line between punk and pop. This is probably the most fully realized rock record I have heard this year – fearless, frantic but very very in control.
10. The Decemberists “Pictaresque” (Kill Rock Stars)
The Decemberists Colin Meloy is arguably one of the most creative songwriters to have emerged in the last ten years. He writes concept albums in an ipod era where albums are rarely listened from beginning to end. His music, both anachronism and relic, is part poppy indie guitar rock, part orchestral sea shanty. His characters seem straight out Dicken’s with “chimbley sweeps,” “barrow boys” and “engine drivers,” accompanied by strings, horns and of course guitars. Vocally he may lose some fans, but to me his sound is a good one that suits his lyrics well. Ultimately “Pictaresque” is about odd but effective juxtaposition of lyrics, music and subject – but it works so well.
11. Death Cab For Cutie “Plans” (Barsuk/Atlantic)
It is hard to believe that five years ago, Death Cab was a virtually unknown dreamy pop band from Seattle. Since then a major label release, a ridiculously successful side project (The Postal Service), and prominent airtime on “The O.C.” has vaulted the band into an almost mainstream stratosphere. But on the bands fourth album, almost nothing has changed – this is a good thing. Singer Ben Gibbard’s gorgeous lilting vocals and MFA literate lyrics just kind of roll coolly off the flawless instrumentation and production of Chris Walla. I suppose at times, because the “Plans” is so much more consistently brighter, the whole thing feels little like a guilty pleasure. But I guess I can live with that.
12. Sigur Ros “Takk” (Fat Cat)
Closing in on over a decade of icy cold ethereal soundscapes, Sigor Ros has finally managed to infuse just enough joy into their craft to pull away from the dark soundtrack music that has distanced their earlier efforts. Imagine a less poppy, but more orchestral â¤¿Polyphonic Spree’ complete with the enormous signature booming crashing waves of sound and the beautiful but indecipherable Icelandic vocals. “Takk” is the kind of record that deserves loud creamy playback on comfy noise canceling headphones while hiking on a crisp cold winter day or long cross country flights. This stuff is one of a kind.
13. Keren Ann “Nolita” (EMI/Blue Note)
Israeli-Parisian songsmith Keren Ann, is a label-mate of Nora Jones. In a sense you could say they are cut from opposite corners of the same cloth. Her songs are less jazz influenced than they are lightly Astrud or Bebel Gilberto. Keren Ann sings in sultry breathy sweeps (think date music that doesn’t suck) with a kind of rolling down tempo guitar and gently brushed drums that build to perfection before settling neatly. Stoke a fire, pour a glass of red wine and get cozy.
14. The Clientele “Strange Geometry” (Merge)
I have been a fan of these guys for years, but like their three prior uber-hip British retro-folk albums, “Strange Geometry” groves subtly to its own drum. It is debatable how many bands actually sounded like this in the 60’s and early 70’s, but these records seem like well researched projects of wonderfully imagined historical fiction. With a kind loungy swagger The Clientele, tell kind of sensitive stories about love, often set in pastoral settings filled with, you’d guess, beautiful gardens and trees. For those who have more than enough Belle and Sebastian, this size will likely fit perfectly.
15. Dios Malos “S/T” (Startime International)
Not that Dios Malos is an underdog, but last year I felt like an early cheerleader having become addicted to the band’s magnificent debut. In part it was the tasteful homage paid to fellow Hawthorne residents The Beach Boys, in part it was creamy vocals and guitar strumming of singer Jose Garcia that made it something very different. On “S/T’ the band wisely tapped producer extraordinaire Phil Ek (Granndaddy, and Flaming Lips) to bring out a more psychedelic pop sound, resulting in a something which is bigger while still maintaining a kind of intricately precious vibe. So so much better than Ronny James.
16. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club “Howl” (RCA)
In some ways when your band has a name this cool, you take on a rather serious musical responsibility. BRMC has sonically shifted down a gear with “Howl,” which sounds at times like a haunting acoustically grounded, rootsy storytelling affair. Of course there are echoes of Dylan, more as direct homage than quiet thievery, but largely there is a kind of vocal sincerity that just kind of feels right. Risen in part from the ashes of The Brian Jonestown Massacre, BMRC has graduated from student to teacher, and “Howl” feels like confident second chapter.
17. The Concretes “Layourbattlesaxedown” (Astrelwerks)
Sometimes the Swedes just figure it out (H&M, Ikea, tennis – for a while). The Concretes second full length album is a pleasant surprise after a blandly average debut a few years back. But on “Layourbattleaxdown” the band have collected a handful of previously released EPs into something quite wonderful – let’s call it Swedish “indiecountryfolkpop.” Singer Victoria Bergsman spins a kind of wonderful nasally, cigarette-sultry, Nordic charm to the simple guitar-drum backdrop songs. Maybe I’ve heard this formula before, but like a slightly more upbeat Mazzy Star, it is a good place to visit from time to time, especially if it includes a blissful cover of The Stones “Miss You.”
18. Swords “Metropolis” (Arena Rock)
Swords is basically straight up Pacific Northwest indie rock. Not grunge exactly not new wave either, but the Portland sextet throws up a swirling mix of violins, keys, guitars and drums. Mostly “Metropolis” tends to propel itself along with a kind of melodic yet anxious and driving kind of energy. Swords is sneakily addictive and even though it might sound suspiciously familiar at times.
Missed them in 2004 but found them this year:
19. Dungen “Tet Det Lught” (Subliminal Sounds)
This might be the finest Swedish rock record (sung in Swedish) that I have ever heard. Imagine the modern equivalent of mid-70’s Pink Floyd psychedelia mixed with the stoney guitar solos of Blue Oyster Cult or Rush. Seek out and worship ASAP.
20. Inara George “All Rise” (Everloving)
Inara George is the daughter of Little Feat impresario Lowell George. That said I expected post-hippie jam band gook, but this is something all together different. “All Rise” is an immaculately produced darkly-bright songbook of ethereal pop, showcasing George’s mesmerizing vocals. Highlights that include an exquisite cover of Joe Jackson’s “Fools in Love” and harpsichord driven originals like “No Poem.”
Liked them a lot, but you gotta draw the line somewhere:
The New Pornographers “Twin Cinema” (Matador)
Super Furry Animals “Love Kraft” (XL/Beggars Banquet)
Stars “Set Yourself on Fire” (Merge)
The Magic Numbers “The Magic Numbers (Capital)
LCD Soundsystem “LCD Soundsystem” (Capital)
Low “The Great Destroyer”
Deerhoof “The Runners Four”
Shout Out Louds “Howl Howl Gaff Gaff” (Capital)